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June 16, 2011 6:57 pm

Mary Hampton Cotillion, Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden, London

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Mary Hampton’s new album, out in September, is called Folly, and as if to bring the theme to life she has embarked on a June tour of outdoor venues. Duly, on the roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, it began to drizzle; not enough to make an umbrella essential, but enough to chill the air and blot out the lunar eclipse.

Hampton plays her own idiosyncratic version of folk music, an awkward cotillion with a high microtonal keen and words that hint of childhood and madness. On record, the songs, hermetic as bell-jars, shimmer and prickle so artfully that the lyrics blur.

The outdoor setting was unexpectedly helpful: over the noise of buskers on the Embankment, of buses braking on Waterloo Bridge and security staff with walkie-talkies, she projected more forcefully. The odd aural detail – Jo Burke’s fingernails scraping the inside of a bodhran, or Seth Bennett trilling a bicycle bell – was lost to Kent trains rattling over Hungerford Bridge, but the words carried warmly.

The best of the new songs was “The Man Behind the Rhododendron”, a reluctantly sympathetic account of Victorian colonialists exporting England – “steaming up the Yangtze on an improvised chaise longue”. The strings were pure poetry, and Jo Burke’s recorder puffed like a steam-driven carousel. Shakespearean in mood, “Benjamin Bowness”, an uneasily threatening traditional song about a belligerent tailor, flowered with Hampton’s chiming National guitar patterns against Bennett’s swinging plucked double bass and Alice Eldridge’s cello.

During “Honey in the Rock”, in which Hampton’s scratchy guitar was pulled halfway to gospel by the band’s harmonising and Eldridge and Burke’s 3/4-time clapping game, the clouds lifted, revealing the riverside as a twilight Canaletto. And by the time the band finished with “Because You’re Young”, a swooning-chorused edgy welcome to a newborn baby, the night sky was red enough to delight a shepherd, making the tour’s continuation to gardens and stately homes less of a folly than it had briefly seemed.

 

 


southbankcentre.co.uk

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